You're Just Not That Important

After you win your Dream Client and make a whole bunch of money, buy your team a 24k MacBook complete with diamond logo.

After you win your Dream Client and make a whole bunch of money, buy your team a 24k MacBook complete with diamond logo.

We all need clients to pay us for doing work. We all want good clients who appreciate us. So, as I read this little gem in AdAge, it gave me pause for thought.

I have worked on both sides – agency and client – and something is terribly wrong on both sides.

I’ve been on the client side:

Clients are jerks, they hold the purse strings, demand more faster, then ask you to cut the budget while they art direct the creative into a P.O.S., and run over the budget (of which you probably planned to give them more anyway).

Clients are disorganized.  They know when Christmas (every year), Memorial Day (name all the annual holidays) and CES 2014 is. They don’t get around to doing things until . . .

Whoa! It’s Thanksgiving! I need a holiday campaign!

There’s little planning coming from the Veeps who walk the halls of our hallowed clients marketing departments.

Even the big ones.

They’re too busy. Marketing.

I’ve been on the agency side:

Agencies are insecure. We have an RFP, all hands on deck! It’s due in (name your extremely stupid timeframe here). Each team must develop creative in a week, present internally, and one selection goes forward (or maybe two because the Creative Director wants to see how things play out).

We want this client on our roster! We’ll get more X business!

Nights, weekends and holidays are out. Move out (guaranteed, paid) client projects!

Work hard and fast so we can WIN!

Spend hard cash on prep and traveling to the pitch.

Be stupid.

Now, it was lovely to read that Shane Atchison, CEO of Possible chose to tell the prospective client NO – we won’t work over the holiday (and then still get the opportunity to pitch at a later date). But Shane has that giant holding company behind him – as well as other things (reputation, reach, or could it be creative?) that made the client rethink the RFP deadline.

Not all of us have that luxury. Especially when you’re a smaller, independent agency. Every dollar counts. Really.

So we must pick our battles – or RFPs – carefully.

Preparing to pitch a Dream Client quickly becomes a nightmare when – not only trying to cover the costs associated to the pitch, but what about the work in progress that’s set aside, coupled with working your teams until they’re bleary-eyed – you realize that that piece of business won’t pay for the time and effort you just “invested”.

And please, never say that giving work away for free is an investment.

You just did a whole bunch of stuff for free.

And I’ll bet you didn’t track how many employee hours went into the RFP either.

This is the cost of new business.  

Or a Dreamy New Client.

A client is truly dreamy when they appreciate your agency – for the creative and for the people who make it.

Otherwise, they just aren’t that important. They’re just . . . expensive.

Be smart in 2014. Evaluate what a client brings to your agency

Pass The Kool Aid®

How sad, the very first entry on Google. When a brand is linked to tragedy.

How sad, the very first entry on Google. When a brand is linked to tragedy.

What a shame that something that (for us who were allowed to drink stuff with sugar and fake color a long time ago) was so iconic and happy, has such a sad legacy.

So it goes with your agency.

Drinking the Kool Aid®

I see it every day. I hear it all the time. If you’re in Advertising and you have a pulse, can hear or read, then you know that digital Is Where It’s At

Digital is exciting. And it’s given a wide berth, both in consumption of client dollars and in agency resources.

The Adcontrarian calls out the questionable data, and the folks who worship it like the latest markdown at Filene’s Basement.

I agree with the Adcontrarian, because I too hear it every day and find it remarkable that intelligent folks actually buy in - hook, line and click-through - that because what they do is so important that following rules isn't for them.

I see it on the operational side, and it makes me wince.

I believe in the power of digital, mobile, viral – but advertising, whatever form (channel) used – it still has to sell stuff (eyeballs aren't conversions). And agencies that produce it have to make money so they can keep their doors open.

Your clients have to make money so they can pay you. If your digital wizardry doesn't work for them, then they go on to the next bestest Rainmaker. Basic business.

But digital is different, you say.

Yeah, and so are the people who do digital.

They run faster and jump higher than your average (traditional) ad team.

They have metrics, optics, engagement, conversations, insights, Big Data, on and on. (Frankly I can’t keep up with the language of digital.)

But what I can keep up with is this: you still have to run your agency as a business.

Yes you can have great strategy, planning, creative, execution and whatever else. But you have to know where things are at any given time; how much that project you just finished cost your agency (and you’re only worried about metrics for the client); how much more work you can bring on – and why you can do that.

I don’t usually drink Kool Aid®, but when I do, I drink cherry.

Now go forth, and create a profitable legacy.

Closing the Great Divide – Or Integrating Your Agency

I am actually going to go down this slippery slope...

I have worked in and with agencies that have severe silo problems. Digital and traditional (online and offline – or whatever description du jour) work separately – but in a parallel universe.  Wasteful.

In my personal experience, I found the digital folks think that those on the traditional side have no way of EVER understanding their world.

Conversely, the traditional folks think the digital know-it-alls are way-over-stating it.

What I have also witnessed in the digital world, is that there are either extremely stringent producers/project managers who control every-person’s every-move; or they’re extremely loose and kind of shoot from the hip to get work done – they just run around asking where’s this or that.

Traditional producers/project managers are in their groove and with the exception of some technology advancements, have pretty much the same parameters in managing work as they’ve had for years. Life is good and what’s the fuss?

Digital and traditional are different. And I get it.

Well, knowing that nothing is insurmountable, and most employees are capable of learning, I believe we can actually integrate digital and traditional.

And that’s good for an agency.

I don’t need to learn to code, and you don’t need to learn how to put ink on paper, or edit video. But we all need to know what it takes to get those things done.

There’s a big bonus when knowledge is shared: Communication with your client is clear and accurate (sure we can do X in Y time for Z budget – it's not a guess, or worse, over-promised), better utilization of resources and assets, and consistency in brand and message. But I shouldn’t have to tell you that.

So we travel to an agency in Sweden called Honesty and they’re going for their version of agency 2.0. The belief is that everyone should understand how to produce digital as well as traditional – even getting rid of their specific titles – wow.

I agree with this – and hope the great divide between disciplines is actually bridged – because I’ve seen too much of holding info close – not letting others in because it’s so complicated.

In an article in AdAge, the agency’s CEO, Walter Naeslund says:

It just doesn't make sense anymore to have separate staff to handle a separate area which is inherently impossible to separate from anything else…To achieve speed we attack organizational overhead and inertia by putting all our efforts into integrating strategy, storytelling, design, advertising, PR and production under one roof, one strategic account director and one creative team...To our clients this will mean better results in shorter time and at better prices. To Honesty it will mean a lot of new learning, more creative control, better output and further improved profitability.”

Control, better output and improved profitability.

Makes sense, doesn’t it?

Getting Your House in Order

There’s been a lot in the news, blogs, talking heads – you name it – about the recent decision by Yahoo! to bring all their workers back to the office. No more working from home.

I’ve read doomsday reports on everything from destroying families to losing top talent.

But the bigger issue is that Yahoo! has been in trouble for a long time. They’ve gone through plenty of CEOs in the last few years, and yet they’re just not turning around.

The survival of a large company is at stake here. There are over 14,000 employees who rely on the fact that they stay in business. Could they fail? Sure can. And I’ll bet there wouldn’t be a government bailout available to them.

When a company is in trouble, whether it be Yahoo! or your local ad agency, you have to step back and take a look at everything. From the way the owners/partners manage, to how every individual performs – and exactly what they do or don’t do for your bottom line.

Just because you have been ‘doing it this way for years’ doesn’t mean it’s a successful strategy in this decade (or even this year). Entrenched procedures, seniority based on longevity, or territorial behavior keep you stuck in 1995.

The ability to make changes, and for employees to adapt to those changes quickly, is imperative in today’s economy. Working from home is not a right – it is a bonus that is gained through an efficient process. That process must be well-defined and followed. Only then effective collaboration takes place.

I predict that some Yahoo! employees will leave, some will be fired, and many will come to the office every day. Change and the transition process can be difficult - but are not insurmountable.

I find it odd that a tech company, whose employees should be embracing on-going change, find that this new edict is so outrageous. Yep, going into the office seems to be so antiquated (and inconvenient), but if employees engage in this first step, they could actually be a part of the solution. Do it, contribute, and find a better way to work remotely. Imagine that.

Yes, I’ve read the stats on increased productivity when working remotely. Yes, retaining top talent is important, but the company just needs to do an old-fashioned inventory.

Yahoo! doesn’t know where they are right now, but this step – as backward (but oh-so-basic) as it seems – will give them the hard data they need to move forward. Once inventory is done, they will know the value of the stock on hand and how to sell it. They need to clear out space so they can do the improvements that ‘everybody’ says they need. Like update their site and make it more relevant.

Ad agencies and in-house marketing departments must do the same. Take inventory of technology you use, processes to manage work, and your staff. Any one of those areas can be a drag on the other two. Get those in order, set the ground-rules, then offer work-from-home options should that fit your culture.

Remember: Profits hide a multitude of sins. Do an annual inventory. Don’t wait until you’re in trouble.

Doing Work For Free – Unexpectedly

I just read this piece in AdAge about a web designer who got stiffed on a project.

Has that happened to you?

Okay, in retaliation, this guy took over the client’s website and aired his issues. One section here caught my eye. Well actually, it’s pretty glaring if you’ve been in business a while

“Give a barren advance, rake up a huge bill and ignore every invoice. Rush fees, heavy overtime and weekend work are expected to be free.
You don't get to sleep for days on end, but you do get to wait on your money forever.
It's people like this who cause company after company to go bankrupt.”

Well, whether this guy was legit, or performed badly, there’s a lesson here. And it seems from the comments in AdAge, independent web designers/developers just aren’t getting it.

What it is…good business sense.

I was a freelance designer and illustrator for years. And yes, I got stiffed. More than once.

But I learned.

What is good inside an agency or an in-house marketing department is good for the individual entrepreneur – you must consider it a business. This isn’t some hobby to fill time.

It doesn't matter where you work or what your role is, you have to take into consideration the scope, budget and timeline. And it has to be in writing. And signed-off by the client.

This is so bloody basic I can’t believe I’m saying it. But the parameters of scope, budget and timeline in the creative business are repeatedly ignored.

It’s not just a CEO or partner who should be watching the books – it should be every individual.

So, little one-person-operation, hear this: Get scope in writing. Provide an estimate and get it signed-off – and make sure payment terms are clear. Provide a timeline and stick to it. AND clarify what constitutes a chargeable change and what doesn’t.

If you receive payments incrementally, make sure they’re on time. And be prepared to stop work if the client does not pay. You are not a bank. Here’s a nice little read about sunk costs. You know, you put so much into a project that you think you should keep going.

You are a fool – whether agency or independent – to keep working for a client if you do not get paid.

Send that deadbeat client on a hike, don’t give them assets, and don’t let it get to the point where you’re nuking bridges.

How To Fix It

There are lots of blogs written, and consultants with sites who work with / write about agencies and in-house marketing departments. These experts assess and refine your business skills, coach leadership, or even define your brand. Most are highly qualified and very successful – plus they’re really nice folks.

They work with Owners / Partners, EVPs, SVPs, VPs, Accountants – all those guys and gals who lament, “There’s something wrong.”

When your car doesn't start do you get out, take a look, and decide it needs a wash and wax? Nope. Instead, you have someone get into that…place…under the hood, where you never look.

I am like...an automotive technician. I check out the moving parts of your agency or department. Disassembly and observation tells me what is wrong. Management usually doesn't go there.

I work with the day-to-day everyperson (which probably represents, a large percentage of your staff), and their seemingly drudgery-related stuff that can sap your organization of…joy.

I know joy exists in advertising, because I have witnessed it. In between crises.

Joy: things that make you want to go to work. Like doing awesome creative, bonding with appreciative clients and turning a profit.

I have done the work myself, dealt with the powers-that-be, and know exactly what they’re thinking:
We’re always over budget (not making money on X client), or late, or employees are hatin’ on one-another – as in, no joy. Fix it.

I've said it before and I’ll say it again – if you want to know what’s going on, or going wrong – ask the people doing the work.

Well, for God’s sake, do not crowdsource a solution. Because like any committee, they meet; issues get discussed (interminably); ideas cheered; a task force is assembled; a manifesto written; then everyone gets busy and nothing changes.

The suggestion box is for management who doesn't want, or is ‘too busy’ to take a little time and have direct contact with staff. And, have you ever read the suggestions? “Let’s have Stone IPA instead of that lame Bud Light. Trust me, I have seen that.

If it sounds like I’m beating up management – I am. Quit thinking you know everything and listen to your employees. Incessant whining is one thing, complaints are something completely different. Let the whiners go elsewhere to spread their gloom; listen to the complaints because those can be fixed.

I invite you to descend from that throne and pay heed to your employees’ ideas, complaints and solutions – all the time. The complaint department is a laser-quick path to enlightenment.

Give those ideas/complaints/solutions some air time. Ask that person to flesh-out the idea, provide a simple plan, and bring it back. Then give it thoughtful consideration – right away – and act. They did the work, you owe them. And it just could fix the problem. Then you wouldn't need to hire a consultant.

Back to process.
Most agencies have competent accounting staff. That’s because they have learned to follow strict rules - there are specific procedures for that role. There are amazing programs out there that will give you every kind of report you can imagine. And if you have good process in place – a process for the other 90 percent of your agency – you will be able to rely on those reports. Imagine, getting rid of Excel.

But a lot of agencies – and in-house marketing departments – don’t have a good process for managing (e.g. documenting, tracking) the day-to-day that feeds those important reports. You know, the ones that tell you if you are making money – or not.

The problem usually is this: management doesn't like to hear whining about process, so they forego structure for just a little quiet. This stuff doesn't just go away and fix itself.

As an aside, if your staff doesn't have the time to assess, define and implement process and tools; and you (managers) don’t want to field the, “why are we doing this?” I can help. Short term / long term solutions are available.

So all those things you hate, and your staff says takes too much time – like process, forms, schedules, budgets/estimates, and – timesheets. You need them. And to be effective, they really should be accurate – like updated – real time.

It isn’t drudgery if you define your process, put good tools in place, and ensure compliance.

It will become a habit. Like having Beer Fridays. You will experience joy.

the bank of [your agency name here]

I just read the brief piece in AdvertisingAge: Three Agency Trends for 2013, and the first trend is Slow payments from clients is the new reality! Ironically one of the other two is about consolidation. No wonder. What small- to moderate- size agency can afford to be the bank for a client?

They say it’s, “not great for agencies, however it’s the new reality in 2013”. No kidding, but I’ll bet it started well before the New Year.

So my question goes out to you folks in the agency world. Don’t you think you should work a little smarter this year? Maybe control costs – like the volume of resources you put into the client’s work?

Follow the money. It has never been more true – or essential.

I don’t mean reducing the wonderfulness of what you create, but keeping a watchful eye on where money is being spent. Time = Money.

Such as a creative deciding to spend (a lot) more time than estimated tweaking and re-tweaking a layout. Or that lovely back-and-forth between a proofreader and a copywriter on whether a serial comma is appropriate. Wastes time and money.

And while I’m at it, you can save a whole heck of a lot of cash if your account team exercises a little restraint when saying YES every time a client wants to be an art director. Those changes rack-up huge costs – which I’m betting you don’t usually track (they’re just small, quick changes), and certainly don’t bill.

I've said it before, everyone in your agency is responsible for ensuring a profit. That profit gets pretty thin when you’re carrying your client for 120 days. And when that profit is devoured by poor management of the client and staff – you’ll break even, or worse, have a really crappy year.

How long can you do this?

New Year’s resolution: call your entire staff together and decide exactly how you will manage your work – and your clients – for 2013. Agree to it and stick to it. And track everything – this means estimates, changes and timesheets. I stress tracking because next year, when do your year-end evaluation, and  you’re ready to re-negotiate client contracts, their value to your agency will be very clear.

And who knows, if you're awesome and efficient, one of the big holding companies may come calling.